The Madison Water Utility plans this month to finish expanded testing of wells for pollutants known as PFAS, as officials discuss whether to reopen a well shut down in March after the chemicals were found at levels authorities describe as low.
Meanwhile, business groups are criticizing a PFAS groundwater enforcement standard recommended last month by the state Department of Health Services. The proposed standard, much lower than a federal health advisory level, would be one of the most restrictive among states.
“We are deeply concerned that such a standard could devastate Wisconsin’s economy and significantly raise the cost of residential water,” said the Water Quality Coalition, which includes Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the Wisconsin Paper Council and the Wisconsin Dairy Alliance.
The state Department of Natural Resources is charged with putting the groundwater standard into administrative regulations, a process expected to take two to three years.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyls, are a group of chemicals found in firefighting foam, food packaging, non-stick cookware, water-resistant clothing, carpeting and other products.
Some of the long-lasting compounds may increase people’s risk of cancer and affect cholesterol levels, childhood behavior, the immune system and the ability to get pregnant, studies have found.
In Madison, voluntary testing by the water utility earlier this year — looking for more of the compounds, and sometimes at lower levels, than previously analyzed — detected PFAS at 10 of 19 wells sampled. The highest levels, which officials say are too low to be a public health threat, were at Well 15, on East Washington Avenue, which was turned off in March.
The city’s four other wells are used only during summer. Three are now in use — Well 8 on Lakeland Avenue, Well 17 on South Hancock Street and Well 27 on North Randall Avenue — and will be tested by the end of this month, Amy Barrilleaux, spokeswoman for the water utility, said this week.
The fourth seasonal well, No. 23 on Leo Drive, is rarely used because of high iron and magnesium levels, Barrilleaux said. If the well is not needed this summer, it likely won’t be tested for PFAS, she said.
PFAS in Well 15 is believed to have come from the nearby Truax Air National Guard base, where firefighting foam is used in training exercises and PFAS contamination has been found in groundwater.
Lower amounts of PFAS in Well 16, on Mineral Point Road on the West Side, are thought to have come from a former landfill.
The sources of low or trace amounts of PFAS found at the eight other wells are unclear, according to Joe Grande, water quality manager. The two most widely understood PFAS compounds, PFOA and PFOS, are no longer made in the U.S. But they can be found in imported goods, and thousands of other PFAS chemicals have been developed and are used.
Future of Well 15
On Tuesday, Grande is scheduled to talk about the future of Well 15 at the water utility board’s monthly meeting.
Earlier this year, city officials said they planned to reopen the well after the state health department released its recommended PFAS standard. But the well has remained off line, indefinitely, since the recommendation was made June 21.
“We don’t want to rush into bringing it back on line,” Barrilleaux said.
Testing of Well 15 has found 12 parts per trillion of PFOA and PFOS combined. The federal advisory is 70 parts per trillion. The state health department’s recommended standard is 20 parts per trillion.
Vermont has the strictest permanent groundwater standard: 20 parts per trillion for five PFAS compounds combined. Testing of Well 15 has found 34 parts per trillion of the five compounds combined, though some amounts are inexact and the health risks of compounds can differ, Barrilleux said.
“We are in a little bit of uncharted territory in terms of when to turn (Well 15) back on,” she said.
The business groups this month criticized the health department’s recommended standard of 20 parts per trillion, along with its proposed “preventive action limit” of 2 parts per trillion, the level at which authorities could require action.
“This standard will drive resources and jobs from Wisconsin to other states with more reasonable, science-based standards, and will increase utility costs for all Wisconsin citizens,” the groups said in a July 9 response to the proposal.
They said the studies referenced by the health department support 70 parts per trillion, not 20 parts per trillion.
Health department toxicologist Sarah Yang has said findings in November by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry showed a level stricter than the federal advisory was needed to protect public health.